Fear of human ’super predator’ pervades South African savanna

Footage recorded by automated behavioural response system documents the behaviou
Footage recorded by automated behavioural response system documents the behaviour of mammals in response to human voices. (Liana Zanette image)
New study: Fear of human "super predator" pervades South African savanna Elephants, rhinos, giraffes and other wildlife dread people far more than lions Lions have long been considered the world’s most fearsome predator, the "king of beasts," but according to a new study, fear of humans far exceeds that of lions in elephants, rhinos, giraffes and every other mammal across the African savanna.

Liana Zanette with an automated behavioural response system. (Michael Clinchy photo) This discovery greatly strengthens growing evidence from experiments on wildlife worldwide showing fear of the human "super predator" pervades the planet.

The new findings by Western University biology professor Liana Zanette , in collaboration with one of the world’s leading lion experts, Craig Packer from the University of Minnesota , and others, were published today in Current Biology .

Working in one of the world’s premier protected areas, South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park, Zanette and her colleagues experimentally demonstrated that local wildlife were twice as likely to run, and abandoned waterholes in 40 per cent faster time, in response to hearing human voices compared to hearing lions or hunting sounds (dogs barking or gunshots).

Near 95 per cent (94.7) of species ran more or abandoned waterholes faster in response to humans than to lions, with giraffes, leopards, hyenas, zebras, kudu, warthog and impala all running significantly more from the sound of human voices than the sound of lions, and elephants and rhinos abandoning waterholes significantly faster upon hearing humans than hearing lions.

"These findings add a new dimension to our worldwide environmental impacts," said Zanette, a renowned wildlife ecologist. "The very substantial fear of humans demonstrated here, and in comparable recent experiments, can be expected to have dramatic ecological consequences, because other new research has established that fear itself can reduce wildlife numbers.”

Global surveys show humans kill prey at much higher rates than other predators, making humans a "super predator."

"Consistent with humanity’s unique lethality, data from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, and now our work in Africa, is demonstrating that wildlife worldwide fear the human ’super predator’ far more that each system’s non-human apex predator, like lions, leopards, wolves, cougars, bears and dogs," said Zanette.

To conduct their experiment, Zanette and the team deployed hidden automated camera-speaker systems at waterholes that, when triggered by an animal passing within a short distance (approximately 10 meters or 30 feet), filmed the response of the animal to hearing either humans speaking calmly in locally-used languages, lions snarling and growling, hunting sounds or non-threatening controls (bird calls).

"These results present a significant new challenge for protected areas management and wildlife conservation, because it is now clear fear of even benign humans, like wildlife tourists, can cause these previously unrecognized impacts," said Zanette.